The (Organised) Chaos of Enrolment Week   It’s that time of year.  If you are new to FE, you will be wondering what on Earth is going on.  People are queuing out of every door to get forms filled in so they can be stamped by someone else and then swallowed by a scanner and converted into a student badge before their bewildered eyes. Innumerable new colleagues are running past you waving piles of sheets with names like “CA1R” and “FR2D” and asking which ones you need.  You haven’t got a clue.   

I remember my first enrolment day.  I spent the morning with a soon-to-retire maths lecturer who appeared to double as a kind of human search engine, fielding questions from prospective students and staff, like a “siri” or “cortana” that actually worked.    “Alex, when are the English exams?” “22nd May, 1st and 6th of June” 

“Alex, where do they go for the cabin crew course?” “Second floor, west block, room 231” 

“Alex, what’s the code for non-regulated 20 hours community maths?” “MATXL18B2” 

“Alex, how many learning hours is the entry level English course?” “46” 

I stuck close to Alex.  There was nothing he did not know about the vast bureaucratic machine that swung into action during enrolment week, and his knowledge of the actual courses on offer was enviable too.  His gallows humour and sardonic manner were easily mistaken for general negativity, but that was not the full picture.  He himself had come into teaching through an unusual route, having been first a plasterer, then an electrician, next an assessor and inspector, then a lecturer in electronics who substituted in the growing maths department, and finally a maths lecturer.  He understood how it all worked and he represented the best of FE.  He knew when someone deserved a second chance, and how to bend the rules to get them one if they fell outside the funding bracket.  He took the time to talk through options.  People came to him wanting to join the police and went away enrolled on animal care.  This was not because he did not listen to them, but because he made them actually think about what they were good at and what they wanted to do.  AND he was clear about the employment prospects for each course, for each individual. 

Alex was wonderful, but not really unique.  Most lecturers encourage a student to look elsewhere if they think a particular course is unsuitable for them, and part of the job is accumulating knowledge about other departments.  Increasingly, though, the pressure is on to get the numbers up.  No head of faculty wants to tell two of their staff they are out of a job, but that’s the reality if not enough students enrol on a course.  So, with funding getting tighter, more students are enrolled on a programme that will not clearly lead them to employment.  Perhaps they are allowed to start a level one engineering course, with the knowledge they need English and maths to progress... but they have re-sat four times already and failed to grade.  Or perhaps they want to design computer games and enrol on programming and graphics.  That’s a lucrative area, but a relatively competitive one, and it is unlikely that a young person who has never taken an interest before reading the prospectus, who struggles with numeracy and literacy, is going to make it in that industry. 

It’s easy to understand why this happens.  The funding model incentivises it, and much credit is due to FE staff that the sector is not more cynical than it is.  It is easy employ high sounding arguments to justify enrolling someone on a course that could lead them nowhere.  We can talk about “giving them a chance.”  We can repeat the old chestnut, “You never know, Einstein only got a C in maths.”  Or people can even take the offensive with it “who are you to stop them pursuing their dream?”  It’s hard to respond to that accusation without sounding like the standard “evil” teacher in every Hollywood production that’s set in a school or university.  A good measure for whether the advice is appropriate might be – if they were your own child, would you see a future for them in that course? 

What the answer is in terms of policy, I am not sure.  Colleges do exist, partly, to give people another chance.  Last year we had a student who couch surfed from one friend’s house to the next, unable to secure a place to live from social services because her alcoholic mother had not officially kicked her out.  In spite of the emotional and physical turmoil of her life, she attended every day (often without a change of clothes) and came through with grade 4s in her resits and passed her childcare course.  A success story like that warms everyone’s heart and might convince you that anyone should be allowed to try anything.  Yet, for every student like her, there is another from a supportive background who drops out of one course after another, enrolling each September on something completely different.   

Perhaps the answer lies, not in a particular policy, but in the professional judgement of staff, especially those who have been doing this for years.  People like Alex get skilled at determining whether someone is killing time or discovering a new passion – it's not always obvious.  If we do want lecturers to use their judgement, though, we need to examine the pressure of funding.  It is much harder to send someone to another desk if your job depends on keeping them at yours